02 Daugherty DreamachineMichael Daugherty – Dreamachine; Trail of Tears; Reflection on the Mississippi
Amy Porter; Evelyn Glennie; Carol Jantsch; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559807 (naxos.com)

Among the younger composers prominent in the fecund musical topography of the United States, Michael Daugherty stands out as being fascinating, compelling and yet profoundly revolutionary in his ability to use the timbral palette of orchestral instruments, squeezing haunting and intuitive, drone-like modalities to evoke feelings of sadness and joy, nostalgia and anticipation, on a grand and sweeping scale. His music on this disc has been rendered with urbane and stylish theatre by the Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller.

The cloudy sound masses of Trail of Tears have been created out of microscopic tangles of intrepid instrumental lines. These gradually become clearer as the work progresses through its ferociously revelatory second movement. This micropolyphony of the melodic line, pursued by flutist Amy Porter, entwined with the percussive outbursts of the Albany Symphony, comes to a mighty resolution in the finale.

In Dreamachine and Reflections on the Mississippi – considerably darkened by the Delta’s history – Daugherty summons his visionary skills to create a compelling musical world, at once eerie and beautiful. The music receives an epic fillip with the inclusion of Dame Evelyn Glennie on percussion and Carol Jantsch on tuba. Orchestral tensions mount in the darkened imagery of Reflections on the Mississippi; the visceral drama of Dreamachine is completely re-contextualised in Glennie’s inimitable manner and expressed in a magisterial rhythmic style, where complex layers of tempi are used to drive the music forward.

03 George PerleGeorge Perle – Orchestral Music (1965-1987)
Jay Campbell; Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Bridge Records 9499 (bridgerecords.com)

Christopher Hailey’s excellent accompanying notes to this release quote American composer George Perle (1915-2009) on his intentions: “Music that was going to do what music used to do, with its basis being the 12-tone scale instead of the diatonic [seven-note] scale.” Based on these premiere recordings, Perle succeeds with clear phrasing and textures, melodic and rhythmic interest, consistent pitch content and colourful, inviting instrumental groups. The Sinfonietta 1 (1987) exemplifies these traditional virtues, opening with a propulsive neo-classical feel. Perle’s string writing is exemplary both in part-writing and mood creation; in the second movement, the Seattle Symphony’s string section supports a questioning clarinet solo beautifully. Other works differ; A Short Symphony (1980) is more influenced by Alban Berg’s expressionism, especially in the intriguing last movement where Perle’s in-depth involvement and analytical insight into Berg’s works produce remarkable results.

Six Bagatelles (1965) are miniatures. No.5 is notable for its otherworldly high divisi strings that surge and recede. In No.4, a solo cello emerges powerfully, contrasting with sustained woodwinds. This piece led to the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966), where the solo-orchestra juxtaposition becomes a natural fit with Perle’s style. He contrasts one orchestra section with another or with the cello in an idiomatic and imaginative way. American cellist Jay Campbell is expressive and assured, conductor Ludovic Morlot balances all wonderfully, and the Seattle Symphony shines. The clever Dance Fantasy (1986) rounds off this remarkable disc.

04 Kernis DreamsongsAaron Jay Kernis – Dreamsongs: Three Concertos
Paul Neubauer; Joshua Roman; Royal Northern Sinfonia; Rebecca Miller
Signum Classics SIGCD524 (signumrecords.com)

In these three very disparate concertos, composed between 2009 and 2014, Pulitzer Prize laureate Aaron Jay Kernis has drawn inspiration from very disparate sources, ranging from African instruments to Bach, Schumann and Yiddish folk song.

Bittersweet melodies pervade the three-movement Viola Concerto, dedicated to and performed by superb violist Paul Neubauer, former principal of the New York Philharmonic. The 32-minute concerto is dominated by its third movement, A Song My Mother Taught Me, lasting nearly 20 minutes, in which Kernis elaborates on the Yiddish song Tumbalalaika and the Fughette from Schumann’s Klavierstücke Op.32.

The 26-minute, two-movement Dreamsongs is dedicated to and performed by virtuoso cellist Joshua Roman. The first movement, Floating Dreamsongs, pits dreamily, plaintive melodies in the cello against orchestral textures featuring harp, marimba and vibraphone. Kora Song, the second movement, is more animated, cello pizzicati evoking the sound of the kora, a plucked gourd, with the orchestra augmented by a West African djembe drum.

Echoes of Bach’s Brandenburgs inhabit the16-minute Concerto with Echoes, scored without soloist or violins. Its three movements encompass a vigorous Toccata, a poignant passacaglia (Slowly) and a nostalgic Aria that gently fades away.

Many critics, myself included, have commented in the past that Kernis’ lyrical lines often lapse into sentimentality, as can be heard on this CD. I’m convinced, however, that this very sentimentality has actually been the basis of his music’s audience appeal and the key to the ongoing success of his compositional career.

05 MortensenFinn Mortensen – Symphony Op.5
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Peter Szilvay
SSO Recordings 3917-2 (sso.no)

Weighty Brucknerian moods and gestures imbue the dark-hued, dramatic Symphony by the previously unknown to me Norwegian composer Finn Mortensen (1922-1983), enhancing a powerful and rewarding listening experience, so much so that I played and enjoyed it again immediately after my first hearing.

A restless, long-lined chromatic melody in the lower strings launches the Allegro Moderato. A gentle English horn solo then creates a moment of calm before a storm of prolonged, repeated thunderbolts, followed by a return to the grumbling opening theme. Finally, a solo flute breaks through the gray clouds with a ray of sunlight and the movement ends in radiant glory.

The Adagio continues the pervading noir-ness, a gripping musical counterpart to the popular, bleakly brooding Nordic detective novels. The scherzo, marked Allegro Vivace, alternates dancing, light strings and woodwinds with heavy, ponderous brass and percussion. In the final Allegro Moderato, an aggressive fugue leads to the English horn melody of the first movement, now transformed into a triumphant concluding brass chorale.

This tempestuous, late-Romantic music receives a full-blooded performance from the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Szilvay, who first fell under the Symphony’s potent spell as a teenage violist performing it with a Norwegian youth orchestra. At only 37 minutes, this CD may seem less attractive than the two other CDs of the Symphony, both of which include additional Mortensen works; nonetheless, this splendid recording of this splendid symphony is well worth your consideration.

06 Chambers coverKenneth Newby – Chambers: Emergence Trilogy Volume 1
Flicker String Quartet; Flicker Ensemble
MP3-320 digital edition, CD Baby, Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music (flickerartcollaboratory.org)

A member of the Computational Poetics research group, British Columbia composer-performer, media artist and senior researcher at UBC’s Centre for Culture and Technology, Kenneth Newby’s music is not well known among the general audience on this side of the country. Newby’s music uses computational techniques in combination with acoustic ones, marked by his training in classical and improvised musics, as well as his extensive music studies in Bali and Java during the 1980s. His current work involves interdisciplinary collaborations in the creation of audiovisual installation works that represent complex images of multicultural identity. The composer writes that his Emergence Trilogy is “the culmination of a five-year research-creation process that involved the formulation of a personal theory of music which guided the development of a set of generative processes for music composition...”

Consisting of 23 primarily aphoristic tracks, Chambers is the first album of Newby’s Emergence Trilogy, the other albums being Elegeia, and Spectral (Golden) Lyric, also available for download. The works are performed with precision and panache by the Flicker String Quartet and Flicker Ensemble. For Mingus is Newby’s longest composition at just under ten minutes. It is also the most varied texturally and timbrally. It prominently features the double bass – as one might expect given the title – the prepared piano, a lacey battery of bells, bowed cymbals and other metal percussion, plus an inventive use of winds. The pointillistic texture is revealed over time via a motoric rhythm, lending the colourfully orchestrated work an attractive forward momentum. For Mingus exhibits several facets of Newby’s advanced transcultural musical aesthetic where echoes of gamelan mingle successfully with Edgard Varèse and John Cage. It certainly deserves to be more widely heard and performed.

Listen to 'Kenneth Newby – Chambers: Emergence Trilogy Volume 1' Now in the Listening Room

07 Music for Empty EarsSeán Mac Erlaine – Music for Empty Ears
Seán Mac Erlaine; Jan Bang; Eivind Aarset; Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh
ergodos ER28 (ergodos.ie)

Music for Empty Ears gives the perfect hint to what you are about to hear on this new release by Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and producer Seán Mac Erlaine. It comes as no surprise that he was noted as one of the most progressive musicians of his generation in Ireland – his music is truly unique. On this album, Mac Erlaine collaborated with two Norwegian artists, live sampling pioneer Jan Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset. Together, they have created a sonic story that will play with your perceptions of time and space, and make your ears beat with pleasure.

I was immediately taken by the first track on this album, Winter Flat Map. The music ushered me into the post-apocalyptic space of pulsating sound waves, enriched with ethereal clarinet lines. This tune was followed by The Melting Song, featuring tranquil vocals (the fantastic Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh) and gentle minimalism. And so the journey begins into the world of Mac Erlaine. Although sparse at times, the music is so richly textured that one truly needs to start listening with empty ears or, rather, without any preconceived notion or expectations. Layers upon layers are laid down with a variety of woodwind instruments, electronics, guitar, keyboards and vocals, creating a world of wonders, surprises, haunted melodies and melancholic impressions. This album is a gem.

08 Stephen AltoftRASP (trumpet in 19 divisions of the octave)
Stephen Altoft
Microtonal Projects MPR008 (microtonalprojects.com)

Stephen Altoft is an explorer who draws maps of musical terrain with his trumpet. The title track, his own composition Rasp, is a slow motion expansion from a breathy hiss to an intense broken buzz, like an angry housefly on a window pane. The logic of the progression is as stark as the material itself: a fearless opening statement and sensible at the same time, announcing to the listener “this is what I work with.”

The following tracks (especially the tenth, Studie by Manfred Stahnke) demonstrate the microtonal potential of Altoft’s remarkable customized trumpet. An extra valve and tubing permit him to divide the scale into 19 pitches without the guesswork of constantly adjusting a tuning slide mid-phrase. The effect is both comforting and disconcerting: one hears unusual pitches securely nailed instead of groped for, and wonders if one is hearing the “normal” tuned notes or the “altered.” And that’s the point, I believe – to re-normalize the various tunings that equal temperament has hidden behind its bland reductiveness.

I’d love to better understand the effects produced on many of the tracks. Electronics play a significant role in some, including the MalletKat, a digital marimba. Despite a promise on the jacket, I could unearth no information on the site about the 11 different composers or their pieces. Nevertheless, the succession of short pieces (none more than eight minutes, most five or less) provides a fascinating trip through this new (or forgotten) country.

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09 PipaOn & Between – New Music for Pipa & Western Ensembles
Lin Ma; Zhen Chen; Various
Navona Records NM6146 (navonarecords.com)

In On & Between, composer and pianist Zhen Chen weaves the musical tale of a Chinese immigrant newly arrived in America. Employing conservative tonal language and instrumentation (except for the pipa, the Chinese lute), the work deftly demonstrates Chen’s bicultural sensibility.

In a recent China Daily.com.cn interview, pipa soloist Lin Ma outlined the work’s narrative. “The pipa is the main character [threading] through the whole album,” Ma explained. “It stands for a Chinese girl who just came to New York City. She wandered, struggled and went through phases of growth. After years, she finally gained a foothold in the new land.” It sounds quite cinematic, and the music would be effective at the movies.

Several times in the suite Chen quotes the well-known English horn melody from Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 “From the New World” (1893), composed while Dvořák worked in the USA. In 1922 it was adapted for the song Goin’ Home by Dvořák pupil William Arms Fisher. For Chen it represents the “respect and sense of promise the United States [has] in the hearts of new immigrants.”

It’s interesting to note that Chen’s setting of the melody owes as much to neo-Romantic 20th-century Chinese patriotic compositions for Western orchestra such as the Yellow River Piano Concerto, as much as it does to Fisher’s song with lyrics cast in dialect and Dvořák’s original setting.

Then there’s my favourite track, Cocktails. It features just Ma’s cantabile pipa playing and Chen’s grand piano, effectively evoking a sophisticated, languid hybrid pipa-spiked-lounge jazz-meets-Satie atmosphere.

01 KollageNo Fuss, No Muss
G-THREE GT0012 (kollage.ca)

If Norman Marshall Villeneuve’s bands from the 1980s and 90s earned him the title of Canada’s (or at least Toronto’s) Art Blakey, then drummer Archie Alleyne (1923-2015) would certainly have been this city’s Philly Joe Jones. Dependably swinging and, or at least it seemed, often employed, Alleyne had catholic tastes and could be heard accompanying singers, hard-hitting ensembles, musical veterans or new faces alike at an unending series of clubs, pubs, Ethiopian restaurants and pizza joints. He was a major force in Toronto’s jazz community. Full disclosure, I knew and admired Archie, having worked alongside him on a number of projects. He was equally fun both on and off the bandstand and, similar to the musicians he most admired, had sly turns of phrase. If a musician had gained a few pounds since their last meeting, Archie would coyly tell them they were looking prosperous. And when he gave musical direction, not that it happened very often, it was “No Fuss, No Muss,” meaning, swinging, joyful music delivered in an authentic and non-pretentious manner without unnecessary complications.

No Fuss, No Muss is about as close to a mission statement as a jazz musician could have, and congratulations to producer/label owner Greg Gooding and the assembled cast of very fine musicians whom Archie either worked with in Kollage or supported as a mentor for their work here. This recording both continues and punctuates the hard bop legacy of Kollage begun by neighbourhood friends Alleyne and Doug(ie) Richardson. By the sound of things, their musical legacy is in good hands for many years to come.

02 James HallLattice
James Hall
Outside In Music OiM 1801 (jameshallmusic.com)

Lattice, the sophomore release from New York-based trombonist/bandleader James Hall, is, as the title implies, an album whose themes are rooted in the productive promise of intersectionality. As a metaphor for improvised music, latticework – with its criss-cross construction, multiple points of intersection, and inherently open form – seems so apt that it is a wonder that the term has not seen wider use. Beyond Hall’s compositional skills (he wrote six of the album’s eight tracks) and trombone, the strands that constitute this particular Lattice are Jamie Baum (flute and alto flute), Deanna Witkowski (piano and Rhodes), Tom DiCarlo (bass) and Allan Mednard (drums), with the addition, on Black Narcissus and Brittle Stitch, of special guest Sharel Cassity (alto saxophone).

Shoy, the album’s first track, begins with a beautiful melody, played by Hall and Baum. The combination of trombone and flute is another unusual but apposite element of Lattice: the direct, lower-register trombone and the breathy, higher-register flute create an unexpectedly compelling texture. The propulsive, swinging Brittle Stitch showcases the talents of Witkowski and Cassity, both of whom take memorable, concise solos, with the assistance of DiCarlo and Mednard, who are excellent here and throughout the album. Traveller, another Hall original, builds intensity slowly but surely, and features brief marvels from Witkowski and Mednard. Beyond its strong compositions and performances, Lattice also scores points for its high production quality: special mention to engineer Aaron Nevezie, mixing/mastering engineer Katsuhiko Naito, and to Ryan Keberle (who co-produced with Hall).

03 Francois RichardLibération – Jazz Flute
François Richard
Effendi Records CMFR004 (effendirecords.com)

How many times can one reach the pinnacle of his compositional and flute-playing powers? Well, if you are the Québécois virtuoso François Richard, then the answer is probably several times; in fact, it might even be a bit risqué to suggest a definitive figure. He may scale even greater heights in future, but if he never achieves anything better than Libération he still has ample reason to be proud. Richard’s take on the lineage of the cool, spacey flute is infinitely less than conventional here, seeing him summoning woody tones from the instrument that float benignly over Guillaume Martineau’s languid piano, the growling gravitas of Rémi-Jean Leblanc’s contrabass and the delicate thunder of Martin Auguste’s drums.

Each musician takes turns adding rich and not entirely predictable harmonic inventions to the music. The opener Ponctuation is a joyous, dancing piece which engages the senses. It’s followed by Winter Blues, a slow, slightly mysterious and ballad-edged tune with a rueful feel. Winter Blues features a thoughtful melodic solo by Richard, as does Une tempête, which reminds one of the leaping virtuosity of the late, great Eric Dolphy. Richard continues to ring in the changes in mood, structure and tempo, making Libération a program of constantly interesting repertoire.

The considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition, is impressively maintained throughout.

04 Noam LemishPardes
Amos Hoffman; Noam Lemish
Independent (hoffmanlemish.com)

Pardes (pronounced par-DES) is the Hebrew word for orchard or “fruit garden” and, according to the liner notes, the origin of the word “paradise.” This makes a lot of sense: listening to Pardes, the Amos Hoffman and Noam Lemish Quartet’s first collaborative CD release, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported to a musically intoxicating Garden of Eden.

Both Israeli-born and exceptional musicians, oudist, guitarist and innovator Hoffman, now based in South Carolina, and Toronto-based pianist and composer Lemish, have been collecting Jewish melodies from around the world for over 20 years. With Pardes, Kurdish, Ladino, Yemenite, Moroccan, Russian, Bukharian and Israeli songs have been uniquely transformed by Hoffman and Lemish’s shared jazz sensibilities and inspired arrangements. The results? These songs – many well-known and beloved – have been reimagined into sultry, sexy, evocative, compelling and just plain gorgeous jazz-infused jewels.

Each track is worthy of its own review but for now, some “quick pick” standouts: Hoffman’s stunning oud work on Adon Haslichot; Lemish’s exhilarating piano on Dror Yikra; the exquisite contribution by guest clarinettist Jacob Gorzhaltsan on Äji Tü, Yormä, Äji?; the exuberant exchanges between guitar and piano on Tchol Hamitpachat; and the deeply expressive work by both Lemish and Hoffman on Ets Harimon. Guest tombak player, Pedram Khavarzamini, adds yet another layer of beauty on three tracks, and the Gray brothers, Justin (bass) and Derek (drums and percussion), round out this remarkable quartet with their skilful and sensitive musicianship.

Plug into Pardes and enjoy your stay in paradise!

Listen to 'Pardes' Now in the Listening Room

05 Adrean FarrugiaBlued Dharma
Adrean Farrugia; Joel Frahm
GB Records GBCD1804 (gbrecords.ca)

It was while on tour with drummer Ernesto Cervini’s band in 2014 that the idea of recording a duo album emerged for Toronto-based pianist Adrean Farrugia and New York City-based saxophonist Joel Frahm. Fortunately for us, Blued Dharma, released last month, is the result of a splendid idea taken seriously and brought, beautifully, to fruition.

Farrugia and Frahm are masterful musicians and improvisers. And clearly, these two mutual fans and musical friends revel in playing together. Simpatico, musical connection, uncanny understanding, empathy – call it what you will – these two have it, and it permeates the CD. Of the album’s eight tracks, five are originals by Farrugia – as insightful a composer as he is a pianist – two are utterly refreshing and intriguingly different turns on Roy Noble’s Cherokee, and track five is Farrugia and Frahm’s joyful jaunt through Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat classic, Nobody Else But Me; listen for the brief, playful nod to Over the Rainbow. The title track sounds like what you’d imagine something called Blued Dharma would: contemplative, expressive, deeply personal. The third track, For Murray Gold, is a heartaching ballad. If someone ever writes a piece of music for me, please let it be that gorgeous!

Farrugia and Frahm do not merely improvise. They complement, interact with, enhance, cajole, inspire, coax and charm each other. Blued Dharma is nothing short of magical. You, too, will be charmed.

06 PlantPlant
Éric Normand & Jim Denley
Smeraldina-Rima 26/Tour de Bras TDBLP990002 (tourdebras.com)

Quebec’s smaller cities sometimes spawn radical music. Michel Levasseur has produced 34 annual editions of the epic FIMAV festival in Victoriaville, while Éric Normand has created an extraordinarily active scene – complete with record label and improvising orchestra – even further afield in Rimouski. One of Normand’s ongoing collaborations is with Australian saxophonist/flutist Jim Denley: they first recorded together in a Rimouski quintet in 2010 on Transition de Phase. Plant, available as a beautifully packaged, limited-edition LP or a download, presents the two in a 2013 performance. If the title suggests organic growth, a first hearing suggests it’s a pun, linking garden and industrial plants.

If the combination of flute or saxophone and electric bass might suggest sparse work, that’s hardly the case here. There are dense, sustained sounds, whether alternating or layered, coming from Normand’s electric bass and Denley’s “field recordings” of a clothing factory. Whether playing flute or saxophone, Denley often focuses on the slow alternated notes and trills, sometimes sustained with circular breathing. Normand and the field recordings suggest the factory, Denley’s winds in the glade.

Together they create a kind of post-industrial pastoral in which the vibrating amplified strings and machinery ultimately fuse with Denley’s minimalist, gestural language, his flute sound almost a kind of first brush with music in a primeval forest. The result is an extended meditation on the nature and meaning of sound, its threats, codes and ambiguities transfigured into resonant repose.

07 Jakob BroReturnings
Jakob Bro
ECM 2546 (ecmrecords.com)

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro appears here in a stellar quartet that includes two elders of Scandinavian jazz, trumpeter/flugelhornist Palle Mikkelborg and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen. The result is a classic program in the Nordic school that ECM has perfected, a clear, spacious essay in spare melodies, nuanced emotions and subtle background shadings. While Christensen and American bassist Thomas Morgan supply optimum, empathetic foundations with subtle comments and suggestions only occasionally coming to the fore, much of the music feels like a close collaboration between Bro and the 77-year-old Mikkelborg, who composed and produced the orchestral suite Aura with Miles Davis in 1985 when Bro and Morgan were young children.

The profound affinity between guitarist and trumpeter even inflects their luminous timbres as well as their economy of line, Bro’s electric guitar sound clarified to the point that it might be a brass instrument. Their empathy is apparent immediately in the opening tracks in which the two develop ballads with contrasting moods. The opening Oktober is pensive and introspective, foregrounding Mikkelborg’s Harmon-muted trumpet, while Strands is pure reflection in pastoral hues. The title track provides contrast: it’s a collaborative composition between Bro and Mikkelborg with an edge of metallic feedback to the guitar and an echoplex for the trumpet, summoning up something of Miles Davis’ electric period. The concluding track, Mikkelborg’s yearning Youth, restores the dominant texture.

While this description might suggest background music, the CD would likely prove too distractingly beautiful for that.

08 Emmet CohenMasters Legacy Series Volume 2
Emmet Cohen featuring Ron Carter
Cellar Live CL062917 (cellarlive.com)

Masters Legacy Series Volume 2, from New York-based pianist Emmet Cohen, represents a confluence of multiple productive collaborations. The first: between Cohen, drummer Evan Sherman, and bassist Ron Carter, the latter of whom, for the unfamiliar, is the titular master whose legacy is being celebrated. Now 81, Carter has appeared on over 2000 recordings, and came to prominence in the 1960s as a member of Miles Davis’s “second great quintet,” along with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. The second collaboration: between Cohen and Vancouver-based record label Cellar Live, helmed by Cory Weeds. Initially a label that predominantly released live recordings made at the now-defunct Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver, Cellar Live has grown into an independent powerhouse, with over 120 releases since its inception in 2001. The third collaboration, in a somewhat broader sense: between New York and Vancouver. Weeds and Cohen first met in 2016, as part of an annual Weeds-conducted jazz-centric tour of New York, and Masters Legacy Volume 2 was recorded at Vancouver’s Pyatt Hall.

With 12 tracks and over 70 minutes of music, the album is packed with interesting material. All Of You kicks things off, recalling, in its tasteful, playful minimalism, the work of Ahmad Jamal, another living jazz master. The Carter-penned blues It’s About Time is an album highlight, with strong, swinging playing from the trio, and a fiery, tempo-shifting Joshua closes the show, showcasing Carter’s propulsive facility. A strong album, both in concept and execution.

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